Jo Barnes Headshot

International Women's Day 2022

Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2022, the annual celebration of women’s achievements, we spoke with IoD Chartered Director Jo Barnes about the issues that women still face in the workplace.

Jo is managing director of built environment specialist Sewell Estates and of Shared Agenda, which she established in 2012.

With more than 27 years’ experience working in property development and regeneration across the North of England and Scotland, Jo is a keen advocate of life-long learning.

As a Queen’s Award-winning company and a Sunday Times Top 100 Company to Work For, the Sewell Group is well known for championing social mobility and has recently announced plans to triple its recruitment of graduates, apprentices and trainees over the next five years, in support of local economic recovery.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BreaktheBias. The campaign aims to call out gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping.

Jo said: “Despite my success in business, I know I am not alone in having experienced gender bias in my career with some behaviours more overt than others.

“However, while we need to recognise bias and create different and better conditions to stamp it out, the work environment has changed dramatically in my working career and I have every faith that it will continue to improve as new generations come through. Women can make a great success of their careers if they are prepared to work hard, create a solid network and take opportunities.  Also, keep an eye out for those wonderful people who see your value along your journey and act as a sponsor /support for you without being asked.  I recognise the impact these individuals have had on my career, particularly when they speak up for you when you’re not in the room.  If you are in a position to do the same for others, please do as it will make the difference for them.

“I firmly believe in the power of business in generating social value and leaving a positive legacy, creating life chances for people by giving them access to opportunities, better environments and raising aspirations.

Q: Tell us about your professional development journey

A: I began my career in the public sector working in teams regenerating towns and cities across Scotland and the North of England.I completed a BA (Hons) Economics at Northumbria University and continued to study as a postgraduate at Napier and Glasgow Universities while I was working. In my mid-30s I joined Sewell Group as CEO of one of their businesses. I knew I needed to develop my craft as a company director, so I completed the IoD Chartered Director route. Last year I became MD of Sewell Estates, which means I head up a diverse range of built environment businesses (including construction, facilities management, investment and development, consultancy and data visualisation businesses).In my career with Sewell, I have been involved in public private partnerships, acquisition and disposal of new businesses and investments and have had the opportunity to start a new business, Shared Agenda, which continues to go from strength to strength.

Q: Why is it so important to keep learning?

A: I think that learning forces you to confront your assumptions and stops you from becoming intellectually lazy. It helps me with my creative thinking which is critical to being a leader in any organisation; after all, a huge part of our job is second guessing what will happen next and solving problems when you don’t get it right first time.

Q: What, if any, barriers have you had to overcome to achieve your career potential?

A: Not so much a barrier, but something that I have had to find my own way of making work…keeping my career progression moving while staying fully involved in my family life.It has become easier as my kids have grown and I have taken more senior positions and can control my diary, but I understand why many people find it very tricky.I believe that I am a better parent/partner/friend though because of my career experiences and hope I set a good example of a working woman to my kids.I always try to support other parents/carers in our business to find the balance that works for them.

Q: This year’s IWD theme is #BreaktheBias – what bias do you see in your working life, and how would you break it?

A: Unfortunately, I still see a lot of gender bias.Not within Sewell, as we work very hard to ensure that we treat people fairly, with dignity and respect, but in the wider world. In my career I have seen some very bad behaviours – some overt and some more subtle actions – that have shown a bias against women.Some examples that come to mind:

  • Regularly and deliberately talking over women in meetings
  • Ignoring what’s been said by a woman until a man repeats the exact same point!
  • Being overly concerned with what women are wearing and whether it is suitable for the setting/seniority etc
  • Being told that I’m a bit too forthright and emotional, whereas the same behaviours in men are thought to be assertive and passionate
  • Assuming that more junior men that attend a meeting with me are my boss! I particularly relish the moment when they find out that the person they have directed all of their conversation to isn’t the decision maker.This is despite being told my role at the start of the conversation – I guess they’ve already made their mind up by that point.Those years of programming are hard to unpick I guess
  • Overly praising women for doing a good job, as if it was so unexpected that they need a pat on the head that they wouldn’t have given to a man.You might think I’m being picky here, but it is so patronising and undermines any credibility you might have built up.Of course, if anyone wants to underestimate a woman, they do so at their own risk!

Q: As Covid creates new flexible ways of working, how will this enhance gender equality?

A: Covid has fast tracked flexible working in a way I wouldn’t have believed possible.Of course, not everyone in our business has the privilege of being in a role that can be done from home, but it has certainly not hindered our productivity and our office-based teams have adopted a hybrid approach that allows for social interaction and quiet working as it suits them. We did miss the social side of things during lockdown and it is brilliant to see that now returning as team working and friendship are critical components of our culture.Flexible working – fast tracked by Covid – is something that should help everyone regardless of gender. We all have other responsibilities outside of our work.

Q: What policies could be introduced to ensure greater equality of talent and opportunity?

A: I am particularly keen on helping young people to get a foothold on the career ladder, especially those who aren’t necessarily following the traditional routes.We have a range of initiatives that we have been piloting to help find paid work experience within our business for those young people who are not in education, employment or training. Just because they haven’t had the best start in life doesn’t mean to say there isn’t a wealth of talent hiding in plain sight.We can’t employ all of these young people, but we can do our bit to get them on a more positive path.So, I guess more policies/funding that encourage small and medium sized businesses to take on more trainees that they initially felt were not affordable/manageable would be great; then there might be more businesses willing to take a chance on a young person.

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